Ancient Libraries

Libraries have been around for a very long time and somehow it seems to catch the popular imagination, or media imagination, at least, when a new bit of knowledge is revealed about them. There seems to be something about human psychology that life in the “Old Times” was really basic and I think it must come as a shock when evidence is found that humans have been doing the same things for millennia. A piece of news caught my eye. A 2000 year old building has been revealed in Cologne, which puzzled archaeologists for a while.   Comparing it with other buildings, they decided that it was most likely to be a library building, as it had many small compartments just the right size to hold a few scrolls. Around 20,000 of them.

Of course, there is no record of what type of library this was or what sort of documents were held there. for example was it philosophical or religious teachings, legal documents or the mundane bureaucratic records of a governing body. Was it for the use of all, or a select few? Was there a Librarian that looked after these documents? we can only speculate, but what ever they were, the knowledge that they held was considered important enough for them to be neatly housed in a stone building.

Another library doing the rounds on Social Media is the Chained Library at Hereford Cathedral. I remember seeing this a long time ago, as a child. Hereford Cathedral was one of the places that I really liked visiting, along with Cyfarthfa Castle and Monmouth Museum. I was an unusual child. The Chained Library is so called because the books are chained to the shelves. Apparently the library was built this way in the 1600’s and the cathedral’s medieval manuscripts were rebound and re-shelved – modernisation at the time, no doubt.

As I recall, the library was situated up a narrow spiral staircase, in a small dark room, with the shelves looking very dark and very, very old (was very, very young). It was unusual to find it open, and there was a guide to take you up there. It certainly added to sense of mystery and uniqueness of the collections. It seems as though they have been cleaned and re-housed. Better for preservation, no doubt and accessible to more people, but rather a shame, I feel, to lose that feeling of something exciting and special.

A third library, I came across last week. This is a tiny library, and it is the space itself that enchanted me, more than the collection of books inside it. It is in a turret of Ferniehirst Castle, designed in the 1600’s and housed the private collection of the laird. Completely circular, with shelves reaching the elaborately carved ceiling, it felt like a little private chapel to knowledge and learning. And the natural habitat of a librarian.
The library in Ferniehurst Castle

By Victuallers [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, from Wikimedia Commons

Today, in this time of efficiencies and austerity it seems that library buildings are too costly to maintain, or too costly to fill with staff, and some people consider them unnecessary because knowledge is held on the internet. However, our ancestors know that knowledge needed to be put somewhere safe. Safe for the container of the knowledge, scrolls, books, other documents, and safe for the person reading that knowledge. I believe that there will always be place in the world for library buildings. 2000 years of their history shows that humans care about them.


Will the Germany V Elsevier situation herald a new model for publishing?

It is currently popular to give something up in January. Here in the UK the Charity Alcohol Concern have created the Dry January event to promote the health benefits of giving up alcohol for 31 days.  This year I have recently seen a similar campaign running around on Twitter and Facebook that urges you to give up sugar for January. Personally I have to relinquish eating the lovely, rich, stodgy Christmas food before I start looking like a Christmas Pudding.

Christmas pudding (11927643275)

However, Research Institutions across Germany are starting the new year giving up something else in order to make a stand about open access to research. Around 60 institutions have chosen to cancel their contracts with Elsevier because they claim that the publisher’s offer of a nationwide contract will “not comply with the principles of Open Access” and contribute to rising prices for access to research articles. In consequence, all access to Elsevier by the participating institutions ceased on 1st January 2017. The situation has arisen because of a project aimed to negotiate deals with all large scientific publishers for a Germany wide licence which would reduce institutional costs and increase access to scientific literature.

Project DEAL is negotiating on behalf of  the Alliance of Science Organisations in Germany who are attempting to ensure that German research institutions can provide current literature for teaching and research at a price that they can afford. The Alliance believe that large scientific publishers are wielding too much market power and earning too great a profit on the backs of unpaid work done by academics: for example, authoring, journal editing and peer review. They are making a stand at this point because costs have recently risen so steeply that library acquisition budgets have not been able to keep up and therefore have not met the needs of their researchers.

Negotiations with publishers Springer Nature and Wiley are due to begin this month.  It will be interesting to find out the results of this situation. The problem for the German researchers will be lack of access to Elsevier published papers until the dispute has been resolved. One wonders how many of the researchers will turn to open access journals, for information gathering and for publishing their own work. Alternatively, will they search open access institutional repositories to read pre-prints or send emails around the globe to get information at first hand from authors. I do hope that someone is doing research about this. (If not, Evidence Base staff are available at a moderate fee!)

In fact, is this all a portent that a different model of publishing is needed? Perhaps there is room for a duel approach to dissemination of research; publishing the work in two forms, at least one of which being Open Access and another in a top rated journal – whether that journal is Open Access or not. In the UK there is already a requirement that any university authored article published from April 2016 has it’s twin deposited into an Institutional Repository (normally a pre-print) to comply with Hefce  (Higher Education Funding Council for England) policy, for the 2021 REF which relates to the funding of universities. Pushing the boundaries even more, one of the journals in the Public Library of Open Science (PLOS) group has adopted an unusual approach. PLOS Computational Biology is asking researchers to write a Wikipedia article which is then converted into a review paper in the journal. The subject matter is dictated by a gap of knowledge in Wikipedia such as a lack of article or undeveloped article on an important topic, and the review paper is published under the Topic Pages section of the journal. Admittedly this is only possible because PLOS computational Biology is already Open Access and published under the same sort of creative commons licence as Wikipedia and edits and contributions to the article in Wikipedia can be counted as a form of open peer review. You can read more about this here: Creating an efficient workflow for publishing scholarly papers on Wikipedia.

At present, this is only conjecture on my part, but new models for publishing in the true sense, that is putting your work out into the public domain, are developing. For example, open access repositories, research blogs and websites, adding presentations to Figshare and data repositories.  The choice of dissemination route is growing. Is Elsevier therefore being unwise to prevent access to its articles if researchers can find the information they need by another route? It really depends on how long the dispute continues and the lengths to which researchers are prepared to go to discover information and to publish their own work.